How Rochester’s ancestors celebrated Christmas

Dec 19, 2021

As Christmas quickly approaches, Connie Eshbach of the Rochester Historical Society wondered how earlier Rochester residents celebrated the holiday. The answer shows how much the town’s culture and religious practices have changed over it’s long history.

ROCHESTER — Reading through some of the old memoirs that tell of Rochester customs and events, there is no mention of Christmas.

Abraham Holmes writes about some holidays, the 4th of July and Thanksgiving, but not about any Yuletide festivities. L.C. Humphrey also makes no mention of Christmas in his letter.

Browsing through some of the Rochester Journals, a project conducted by Lucy Loomis when she was town librarian, I found an excerpt from the memoirs of J. Augustus Johnson (who was born in 1836 and spent his early years in Rochester) that may offer an explanation.

He writes that, "There were no Christmas trees or gifts at Christmas, except simple things that Santa Claus put in our suspended stockings overnight. The Christmas as observed by our Episcopal friends was held to be too great a concession to the usages of the Roman Catholic Church for a Congregational town."

Certainly, as the years passed, the adherence to their Puritan ancestors' view of the Christmas holidays faded, but there are still not a lot of references to how the holiday was celebrated in the 1930's and 40's.

Eunice Jenkins remembered one Christmas when her mother was in the hospital for the birth of a new brother. The Women's Club brought a basket of groceries which included paint sets for all the children.

It does seem that public Christmas festivities centered around the Church and school, with Christmas one of the few holidays from school.

The Rochester Men's Brotherhood, begun in 1954, was involved in decorating the green in front of the First Congregational Church. Over the years they put up many outdoor displays and decorations, most of which were the creations of Hoyle Demoranville, a teacher of carpentry at New Bedford Vocational School. One popular piece was the Christmas train.

Unfortunately, in 1975, shortly before the Brotherhood disbanded, the Christmas displays were severely vandalized along with damages at Town Hall and several other buildings in the center.

Indeed, the season did not always bring out the best in some people. The previous December a blue spruce that had been donated by Alan Hartley and planted beside the watering trough was cut down and taken away, most probably to become the thief's Christmas tree. Fortunately, it's unlikely that such a fate would befall our current town Christmas tree which is taller and much closer to Town Hall.